Friday, November 27, 2009

Aapka swagat hai. Of course

The sari is perhaps the most gracious dress a woman can wear. But it does not lend itself to fashion variations like a Western woman’s gown does. The Indian male faces the same disadvantage as his dress too is confined to a black bandh-gala shut jacket. The Western male can mark formal occasions with back tie and cummerbund. Or white tie and tails.

At the much-discussed state dinner at the White House, our Prime Minister looked extremely well dressed. But the style was the same as on any other occasion: black shut-coat suit and trademark blue turban. Barack Obama’s dress showed that it was indeed a special occasion: black bow-tie and black studs on a starched white shirt. Ratan Tata and Amartya Sen wore exactly the same Western outfit showing the advantage non-officials have over government leaders.

When it came to the ladies, the contrast was even sharper. Shrimati Gursharan Kaur is a naturally elegant lady. And she looked doubly so in her formal sari. But there was no way she could transcend the familiar look of the familiar sari-blouse combo. Michelle Obama could draw upon an entire culture that thrives on variety and invention. She got herself an all-new look with a shimmering silver-scquinned cream-and-gold strapless gown and matching wrap. Her fashion designer was given full credit. The sari is not designer-oriented. It can be worn in different styles of course – Bengali, Maharashtrian, Kodagu, Mylapore. But it remains essentially the sari.

If you are the Shilpa Shetty type, you can indeed claim that your sari is specially designed by Tahiliani. All it means is that the designer has worked a bundle of diamonds and pearls and stuff on to the sari to make it worth a crore to two. But it too is draped the familiar sari way. Bollywood has done its best to take the sari’s waistline to the netherworld and to let the blouse make its presence unfelt. Even then the sari ensemble remains what it has been from grandmothers’ times.

Obviously style maketh state dinners. Just as well that our Prime Minister and his wife could, in their own traditional ways, present stylish profiles. It might have been different with, say, Deve Gowda. Remember his visit to Davos for the economic forum? Sticking bravely to his native style, he became the Man With the Flying Dhoti in Switzerland. Earlier Prime Minister Morarji Desai was known to take a goat along on his foreign trips. For obvious reasons.

As in style and protocol, so in substance we have reasons to be satisfied with Manmohan Singh’s Washington visit this time. This is worth noting because there were apprehensions that he would be, like he was during the George Bush days, a supplicant anxious to please America. In fact, he did something very different. About a month before the visit, India bought 200 tonnes of gold from the IMF for $ 6.7 billion. The world was stunned by this open vote of no-confidence in the American dollar. Manmohan Singh did make some reassuring noises in his speeches in Washington, but the gold stayed firmly in India as a hedge against the dollar.

Obama for his part had to make reassuring noises to balance his exaggerated attempts to please China a few days earlier. He had hailed China as a great nation, but made it a point to hail India as a great nation of free people – a small change with a big meaning. Besides, he didn’t dare say a word in Mandarin when he was in China, but he managed all of ‘Aapka swagat hai’ in Hindi. The pronunciation was terrible, but the applause was warm. In the end, that’s what sate dinners are all about, aren’t they?

Friday, November 20, 2009

A wall collapses, the world changes

Our press and patriots made quite a splash to mark the 25th anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s tragic death. As it happened, it was also, to significant sections among us, the 25th anniversary of the tragic massacre of Sikhs in Delhi. So the controversies will go on, the accusations not blunting the justifications. The violations of the time were as heinous as the loyalties were blind.

In the hurly-burly of the Indira Gandhi emotions, we barely noticed the 20th anniversary of an event that changed the course of history – the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. It was of course much more than the pulling down of a wall that separated communist territory from Western Europe. It was the dismantling of the Iron Curtain and, in effect, two years later, the dismantling of the Soviet Union.

Those epochal developments were interpreted narrowly in America. Many gave the credit to Ronald Regan’s manoeuvres. Some talked about the end of Communism. Others went so far as to see the end of history. Europe was more mature in its interpretations. Some analysts argued that the US did not win the cold war as much as the Soviet Union lost it. Most welcomed the newfound freedom of Eastern European countries while regretting the “political arrogance” among prosperous Western Europeans towards the poorer Easterners.

Twenty years later Eastern Europe is still relatively poor. In the great, beautiful city of Berlin itself, where the wall stood in grotesque defiance of both history and geography, the merger of the drab East with the vibrant West is still incomplete. Even attitudes are taking time to re-adjust. But these are transitional problems that should not distract attention from the revolutionary nature of what has happened after the Berlin Wall came down.

To believe that Mikhael Gorbachev was responsible for the Soviet Empire’s fall would be to fall into a trap. Powerful as the Soviet Union was – no one can deny Stalin’s profound achievements in building the country into a military powerhouse that could withstand both Hitler’s onslaughts and subsequent American strategies of containment – the country had begun haemorrhaging from within long before Gorbachev ascended the hot seat.


Militarisation was at the expense of everything else. Factories had no time to produce essentials and therefore shortages made the lives of people miserable. In time such harsh realities produced tensions and the widespread, if un-expressed, feeling that they were suffering when others (in the West) were living well. AT the same time, the financial resources of the country were drained by what were seen as unavoidable overseas exercises of superpowers in the cold war era – supporting guerilla movements in various developing countries and sustaining economic ties (which meant huge subsidies) with “friendly” regimes like Mongolia, Cuba and East European satellites. Gorbachev’s contribution was merely his refusal to use violence to suppress local self-assertion movements.

When the mighty Soviet colossus fell, two after-shocks rocked the world. The first was the recognition that rigid socialism that denied basic comforts to citizens was unsustainable, that aspects of capitalism that allowed individual freedoms had a natural appeal to human nature. The second was the acceptance of these realities by China’s Deng Hsiaoping. The internal party reforms that Deng introduced became a backbone of China’s advancement – from limiting the President’s term to two to allowing the profit motive to work its magic.

The progress China has made after the Soviet Union’s collapse is extraordinary by any standard. Capitalism’s evils like corruption and crime have also spread in China, but the country has achieved an international status that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. The hammer strokes that reverberated from Berlin in 1989 have re-ordered the world in the most unexpected ways – and mostly for the better.

Friday, November 13, 2009

India goes unipolar, alas!

What happened to the world a generation ago is happening to India now. When the Soviet Union collapsed, America became the world’s only policeman and George Bush put that status to diabolic use. With the BJP and the Communists writing their own death warrants, the Congress is becoming the choiceless face of a unipolar India. The odious potential of this can be seen in the party spokesman’s proclamation that the Congress triumphed in the latest bye-elections due solely and wholly to Rahul Gandhi’s “vision”. The spokesman did not say that Typhoon Phyan spared Mumbai because of the foresight and perspicacity of Rahulji. For this mercy, much thanks.

Of course Rahul Gandhi is an asset to the Congress. He has gained experience and does not make vapid statements of the kind that marked his early days. But to see him as the sole depository of wisdom is to belittle the Congress and, worse, to signal a new phase of unrestricted, all-consuming sycophancy.

Film star Raj Babbar won in Firozabad because of (a) his star appeal and (b) people’s disgust at Mulayam Singh fielding his son first and this time the son’s raw, inexperienced wife – as though Firozabad was a private fiefdom and the voters his vassals. To ignore these crucial factors and attribute the Congress win there to the “Rahul factor” is self-deception. Where was the Rahul factor in the nine out of eleven seats that Mayawati won despite Rahul’s systematic campaign against her in recent months?

Mayawati will remain a bubble for a few more years. But even she must have realised by now that she has no hope in hell outside UP despite the disbursement of vast sums of money. In Maharashtra this time she contested in 281 seats – and lost the deposit in 252. Not that Maharashtra’s well-wishers have reasons to rejoice. For the MNS ( Maharashtra Nava-rowdi Sena) has won some seats and already demonstrated how they plan to hold the state to ransom.

Like the Reddys are holding Karnataka to ransom. The cabinet, the civil service, the police force and the party high command have all been brought under the thumb of one family which makes no bones about its intentions to milk this once-proud state for its private profit. This is the most lurid evidence yet of the decline and fall of the BJP. With “new generation” leaders like Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley succumbing to the pulls of money power, there is no likelihood of the BJP finding a viable identity of its own in the foreseeable future.

The most disappointing – and the least surprising – of political collapses is the CPM’s. Not a single seat won in West Bengal. Not a single seat won in Kerala. What a fall for a party built on the dreams of the masses. Yet it surprises no one because the party of the proletariat had become the party of five-star leaders. The Bengal leaders at least accepted their defeat and said they would try to correct their ways. The Kerala leaders are justifying themselves by saying that the percentage of their votes had gone up and that anyway it was all the fault of an abominable media conspiracy.

A new left force is what the hapless electorate of India badly needs. The first requirement for such a turn-around is the resignation of failed leaders like Prakash Karat, Buddhadev Bhattacharya and Pinarayi Vijayan. Buddha perhaps may be willing to leave. The other two won’t. So the CPM will go down further in the days ahead. Which is another way of admitting that Rahulji will remain the vision for India. Watch for the party spokesman’s take when Typhoon Phyan comes our way next time.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Kingdom of Money is here

There is a strong case for Bellary to be made a separate state, if not an independent, sovereign republic. That such a consummation will save both Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh from political paralysis is only an incidental benefit. The real gain will be the restoration of Bellary’s ancient royal glory under new kings.

Bellary is today mistaken for a backwater area. Some think it is Sonia Gandhi’s birthplace. Some others believe that Sushma Swaraj went to school under a Bodhi tree there and emerged a Kannada bhasha visharad. Such rumours merely spread the impression that any Tom, Dick, Gandhi and Swaraj can descend upon Bellary in an election helicopter and claim proprietory rights over the district.

Actually Bellary is a treasurehouse shaped over the centuries by the best of empire builders, the greatest of conquerors, the bravest of warriors. The Mauryas put their stamp on it followed by the Satavahanas and the Pallavas, the Kadambas, the Badami Chalukyas and the Rashtrakutas. Then came the Kalyani Chalukyas, the Southern Kalachuryas, the Sevuna Yadavas and the Hoysalas, the Deccan Sultanates, the Marathas and the Mughals. Southern supremacy was re-established thereafter by Hyder Ali of Mysore.

What a splendid procession of cultures, customs, traditions and fashions! What a heritage! But have you noticed a glaring lacuna? From the Mauryas and Yadavas to the Chalukyas and the Hoysalas, everyone was there. But not the Reddys. The absence of such a heroic and ancient dynasty was a blot on the fair face of Bellary.

So God decided to step in for the second time. The first time was when the Rakshasa named Bella was working havoc in the region. Indra appeared and slayed the demon, thus giving Bella-ari its name. This time God did a double whammy. He put both the Kingdom of Bellary and the Kingdom of Kadapa under Reddy dynasties. After all, Kadapa and Anantapur were part of Bellary until the British separated them.

As the two Kingdoms restored Bellary-Kadapa unity, the earth yielded great wealth. The new Kingdoms together threw away inter-state boundary markers, cut roads through forests, and generally tore to pieces what modern Rakshasas called the laws of the land. To ensure efficiency Bellary annexed Karnataka as its hinterland and Kadapa annexed Andhra Pradesh as its satellite.

The two Kingdoms ignored political boundaries as well. The Kadapa dynasty wore Congress colours while the Bellary dynasty sported the BJP’s colours. The colours were only for decorative effect. On the ground, they were one and the same, united in their determination to show the meaninglessness of party labels. They were so successful that they could tell their High Commands to go jump into the Yamuna.

Collaborative money-making cemented their unity. The Kadapa Congress dynasty gave 17,000 acres of land to the Bellary BJP dynasty to set up a steel plant costing Rs 26,000 crores. Look at those figures again and recall how that small-time company, Tatas, struggled to get 997 acres in Singur and finally opened in Ahmedabad with a paltry investment of Rs 2000 crores. Not a mouse stirred in Kadapa’s 17,000 acres. In well-run Kingdoms mice are profoundly development conscious.

Now we can see how Bellary as a separate state can do wonders for India. It can fund all the steel mills in India and all the political parties in India and all elections in India. One source funding all parties will be great for unity. The Sovereign Republic of Bellary can do the same for the world. Imagine Pakistan and the Taliban and Israel and Hamas coming to Bellary for bail-out packages. Money will hold the world together. Money, the Ultimate Truth. Money, the Supreme High Command. Money, that answereth all things. Duddu-avasyamidham Sarvam.


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Shankara: The power of passion

The defining quality of those who leave footprints behind them is passion. What is described in literature as Magnificent Obsession. Many of us do our jobs conscientiously, even efficiently. But not many of us are driven by the passion to do what appears difficult to do. Passion is the dividing line between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

It was passion that made Homi Bhabha take the engineering tripos in Cambridge and then the mathematics tripos and go on to father India's nuclear programme with great flair and foresight. At another end of the spectrum, it was passion that drove Ebrahim Alkazi to turn the National School of Drama into a wonder of India. It was P.K.Nair's passion that made the National Film Archives in Pune a national treasure.

In theatre the outstanding pioneer with passion was Prithviraj Kapur himself. The man with the imperial voice was so obsessed with the theatre that he floated a traveling drama company, Prithvi Theatre, way back in 1944, meeting the expenses of the 150-member troupe with his earnings from films. Today Prithvi Theatre is the most valuable theatrical venue in venue-rich Mumbai. The Kapurs keep the passion going.

Come to think of it, Prithvi Theatre had many advantages -- filmic glamour, Mumbai connections, a connoisseur crowd to draw from. K.V. Subbanna had nothing when he adamantly chose his small Karnataka village of Heggodu as the site of his theatre-film-publishing institute, Ninasam, in 1949. But he had a magnificent obsession. It turned Heggodu into an internationally renowned centre of the arts.

Energy is sometimes mistaken for passion. But they are different. Sharukh Khan is energy, Michael Jackson is passion. Shashi Tharoor is energy, Jairam Ramesh is passion. Sania Mirza is energy, Leander Paes is passion. In fact, passion may not even be accompanied by energy. Narayana Murthy and Bill Gates are outwardly rather un-energetic, what with their slow movements and slow talking style. But the passion is unmistakable.

Shankar Nag combined passion with energy. The result was something like ten men in the form of one man. He was everywhere at once, doing everything at once. Now he was planning a ropeway to Nandi Hills, now a Metro rail for Bangalore, now affordable pre-fab housing for ordinary folks.

Shankar dreamed ahead of his times. But instinctively he was a theatre man forged in the crucible of Marathi theatre in Bombay. Then elder brother Anant became a hit in Kannada cinema and Shankar abandoned Bombay for Bangalore. Marathi's loss was Kannada's gain.

And what a gain! Shankar's versatility made him unique. He cut new paths as director, scriptwriter, organiser as well as actor. He performed with panache in both masala and quality movies. His zestful portrayal of an autorickshaw driver in Auto Raja is still celebrated with numerous Bangalore autos sporting a Shankar photo sticker on their vehicles. Although he kept out of politics, Shankar Nag was the artistic twin of Safdar Hashmi - multifaceted, untiring, creative to the fingertips, dream-driven. Hashmi was killed by political goons, Shankar in a speeding car. Hashmi was 34, Shankar 35. A ridiculous age to die.

Like Hashmi, Shankar lives as a theatre legend. Arundhati Nag has now announced an official website for her late husband. This should be welcomed, not so much for the website itself as the fillip it can give to carrying on Shankar's unfinished business. The most important of these is an art centre for northern Bangalore to match the Ranga Shankara in the city's south. Ranga Shankara became a reality because of one person's, Arundhati's, magnificent obsession. If she can develop one more obsession, there will rise a Shankar Nag Centre for the Arts combining, perhaps, an ultra modern theatre with a cinematheque, a badly needed jewel in Bangalore's crown.